Here are some scenarios I've encountered in my teaching career:
A few years ago, I had a student who was terribly depressed. Despite being a bright and creative kid, this boy practically failed my class and most of his other classes. He often looked sick to me -- he coughed a lot, he often put his head down in class and zoned out, and he once told me that he suffered from deep anxiety. Despite numerous email exchanges with his mom, I never once met her in person. She and her husband both had jobs where they travelled extensively, and neither of them was ever at home with their son. So, he spent his time with his laptop and his ipad. The housekeeper made sure he was fed, but beyond that, he was left to his own devices (pun intended).
I remember thinking, quite judgmentally (and perhaps unfairly?), that if he were my son, I would have quit work and stayed at home to help him. He needed his mom. Who knows what the situation in the family was like. All I could tell, from my vantage point, was that this kid needed a whole lot more care than he was getting.
And here's another scenario - but a different one.
Some years ago, when I was teaching in Boston at a very elite all-girls school, I had a mom call me up and tell me that her daughter, who was in my advisory group, was trying out for a part in the school play and "she just had to get that part because her self-esteem was very low, and not getting that part would be devastating for her." I explained to the mom that I had nothing to do with the drama department, and that they would pick the girl who deserved the role most. The mom argued with me vehemently, and finally threw a veiled threat at me: "We've given the school a lot of money. And if you really want to help my daughter, you certainly can." I was shaken. So I told my principal. She shook her head, sighed, and then declared, "That woman really needs a job!"
I agreed. Some moms live through their children in a way that it destructive for the mom, for the kids, and for everyone else involved.
So, coming back to the question I posed earlier: What's a mom to do?
There are obviously no right or easy answers here. But perhaps we women need to introspect deeply about the choices we make so that we can be the best possible mothers and also feel really good about ourselves. At different stages in our children's lives, and in our own lives, we may need to make different choices. Sometimes, mothering may need to take center stage. And at other times, work and outside interests may need to take center stage. Mothering in the 21st century is a balancing act in every sense of the word, and striking the right balance is never easy.